IoP Stirling Conference


23rd May 2024


25th May 2024

The Institute of Physics 49th Stirling Teachers Meeting was the usual gathering of all those (about 120, not including exhibitors) who had secured the support of their schools to take part in some of the best CPD and networking available anywhere in Scottish Education. I was delighted to see not just teachers here, but also technicians. The IoP’s Stirling committee had worked hard to bring together a great mix of relevant current physics, pedagogical challenge and development opportunities around good, practical classroom teaching.

Is this correct?

Our conference host was Iain Moore, Chair of IoP Scotland, who introduced the first of two keynote speakers, physics educator and film maker Alom Shaha. Alom has established a great reputation as the producer of high quality physics teaching resources, some of the best of which can be found on his YouTube channel. Alom’s provocation was “the art of good science explanations” which he approached by an open criticism of a number of bad examples from self-appointed internet science experts. The example he chose to illustrate the point was that of the “candle in the jar” demonstration. He suggested that often these demonstrations or explanations, usually in a video, are designed for entertainment, not education, but may still be used by inexperienced or uncritical teachers in a hurry to find something to sparkle up their lessons. The problem is that the explanations are often incorrect.

Alom is a well-known published writer (evidenced by a stand full of his latest signed book in the exhibition room). “Flattery secures book deals”, he told us, making the point that people, including publishers, like it when you make them feel good, or clever, or that they learned some science. Those videos and unchecked resources teachers often make and sell for a few pounds on places like TES or Twinkl are not made for teaching, rather they are for superficial entertainment or vanity. What is crucially important, Alom told us, is for authors to have critical friends who are willing to answer the question, “is this correct?” about their explanations. He asserts that good explanations are “central to good science teaching” (are they? Well, they’re better than bad explanations, yes, but are they central?). The difficulty in making them is what he called the curse of knowledge: once we know it, it’s hard to imagine not knowing it. It is important to know your audience, says Alom.

Well, if this isn’t just basic pedagogy. I was wondering if Alom had misunderstood his own audience; I am not sure the message, so far delivered, was at all necessary for this cohort of physics educators. At least, I hope not. We had forgiven his England-centred references to A levels and GCSEs (he’s a physics teacher in England) but when he openly criticised teacher education and teacher educators for failing to prepare new teachers properly, I had to push back. He may be right about that in his own neck of the woods, but from my perspective from 12 years as a teacher educator at Moray House, I can say he is absolutely wrong about it, in Scotland. It seems to have come from a surprising ignorance of Scottish education (he didn’t know what Moray House was – I knew about Moray House long before I settled in Scotland). Alom is right, of course, that proper preparation includes knowing your audience and the context as well as you can; and checking your own understanding before using it to explain things to others.

Practical methodologies in physics

The first workshop I attended wasn’t the one I signed up for, but my arthritic ankle was giving me jip so I stayed in the same room. I’m glad I did, because I felt able, despite not currently teaching in the classroom, to discuss practical approaches with other teachers as we engaged with the equipment circus set up around the themes of speed, and speed via time measurements. This workshop was related to research being done at Strathclyde by Iain Moore and Laura Gray into finding the best methods for some aspects widely used to teach certificated physics courses. The research team are well situated to bring a good understanding of contemporary approaches and I like the open consultation they are doing with practitioners.


Professor Paul Griffin of Strathclyde gave us a superb refresher and update on what’s happening in the quantum world, pitched beautifully that we could all learn something and feel good as we joined up our partial schemas to his quick fire just-beyond-lay perspective. His history of quantum and history of time reminded us of just how far this mysterious world of the quantum has come, and shone light (no pun intended) on the rapid development of opportunities there are for our young people. Paul pointed at the Scottish Science Advisory Council’s May 2022 report, Quantum Technology: Opportunities for Scotland for more detail on the various areas of work taking place and what their relative states of maturity are. Of significance to the audience, the opportunities for careers in the growth sectors associated with quantum research and investment do not just lie in the path of those young people who will go on to doctoral research. That message, I hope will provide a boost for teachers who want to talk about the advantages of studying physics as part of a young person’s portfolio. The Scottish Government have been pushing investment through the University of Glasgow’s Quantum Technologies ARC, which is really encouraging to hear.

Basking in reflected glory

One of the reasons I like to attend this conference is the opportunity to connect with the community of physics educators and those involved with that. I pick up news and gossip, make promises to go for curry, and reinforce my sense of belonging. My ego is stroked as I tell myself I had a hand in the making of some of these superb educators. I’m no fool; I know that it is their own effort and merit that makes them who they are. It doesn’t stop me basking a while in reflected glory. As much as it was good to see and learn how former colleagues and students have been progressing, I also heard tales of battles being fought on many levels with the adversaries we all face from time to time. Most seem to be thriving and surviving. There are worries, too, of course, one of which is the impact of proposed new taxation on the independent sector which is already doing harm to the wrong people – schools seem to be preparing to pass on the financial impact to the teachers in order to protect parents. As is often the case, the political mind shows itself to be weak, ill-informed and reckless. Whatever your thoughts on the independent sector in the provision of infrastructure, some of the actors in that sector contribute substantially more than their share to the wider community, to the benefit of all who partake of that. It would be a great loss to see this damaged at the hands of political ineptitude or cynicism.

On farting termites

OK, that was a cheap shot to illustrate how easy it is to make a headline. After another session on practicals in the Advanced Higher course, the final keynote of the day was presented by Professor David Fowler of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. His talk addressed how physics was being used to answer policy questions around climate change, looking at three cases for illustration. The first, which he described as “fixed”, was the problem of acid rain. He explained the historical awareness and reporting, then political response, to increased acidity of rainfall in northern Europe caused by the burning of fossil fuels in the UK. David underlined the delay on the part of the UK government in responding to evidence that our industrial activities were directly causing environmental damage in Scandinavia, manifested as reduced fish stocks and mass die-back of trees. Eventually, it became expedient for the government of Margaret Thatcher to become “driven by science” and do something about reducing the UK’s reliance on coal. David: “in politics, there’s always something else going on.” Draw your own conclusions; I remember that time very well.

In discussing his cases, David talked about a resistance analogy, derived from Ohm’s Law to describe or model the flux or transport of water, gases, pollutants and so on. A model known as the Penman–Monteith equation allows the rates of exchange to be studied and predicted as if the layers of soil, air, vegetation and so on were resistances in series and parallel.

The further two examples were ground level ozone and climate change, much wider in scope than the acid rain of Northern Europe. Again, David pulled no punches in stating that current politicians are not listening to the scientific advisors they have appointed. Media reporting of the science has hardly been helpful, either. It is clear that the 1.5° ambition is unlikely to be met but this is not Armageddon; changes will be required and these may be significant (such as finding new homes for those that end up under the sea) but these are the knowable consequences of human action. There seems to be no point in being alarmist, nor to turn a bad situation into a cutesy little “and finally…”. Yes, the farting termites are a non-story, grasped and misrepresented by media because they failed to understand the real scientific message.


A superb event, as always. In terms of my own practice, I think I am clear in my mind that I am not going to be returning to teaching physics in a school any time soon, but I am going to retain my GTCS registrations for the foreseeable future. There is work to do for me, not least my research and the efforts I am making with Colin Graham to develop the Interdisciplinary Learning (IDL) Network, and my ongoing interest in STEAM and sustainability at the University of Edinburgh. Networking aside, this conference was worth going to because it has enhanced my capacity in, and enthusiasm for, all of those things.